Who are “the People”?

By Cyberquill 12/18/2012Leave a Comment

At the time of the founding, “the people” were white propertied males, period. Over the years, the term gradually expanded to include women and persons of color.

Nowadays, every homo sapiens that holds a U.S. passport or has at least one foot on U.S. soil is generally considered one of the people. The only question left to decide appears to be whether the unborn are people, too.

Whoever “the people” may be exactly, rudimentary logic dictates that the definition of a particular term must remain consistent within the four corners of the same document, especially a legal one. A specific word, expression, or phrase cannot merrily mutate in meaning from one occurrence to the next.

So while you and I may differ on the precise definition of “the people” in terms of precisely who is and isn’t—or who should or shouldn’t be—included under that umbrella, we must agree that whatever “the people” means, it means the same in one section of a given text as it means in a different section of that text; and it certainly cannot suddenly mean something different from what it has meant in the previous sentence.

Let’s take a look at three of the first four Amendments in the Bill of Rights (emphasis mine):

  • .. or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (First Amendment)
  • A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed. (Second Amendment)
  • The right of the people to be secure in their persons, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, … (Fourth Amendment)

It follows that “the people” whose right it is to peaceably assemble must be the very same people whose right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed, who in turn must be the very same people whose right to be secure in their persons, papers, etc., shall not be violated.

One cannot seriously argue that “the right of the people” to peaceably assemble means the right of all people; that “the right of the people” to keep and bear arms means the right of some people only; and that “the right of the people” to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures means the right of all people again.

Yet this is precisely what many, including the dissenting Supreme Court justices in District of Columbia vs. Heller, are, in fact, arguing.

According to them, “the right of the people” to keep and bear arms refers to the right of only a small subset of the people (i.e., active militia members) relative to those whose right to peaceably assemble shall not be infringed and who shall be secure in their persons, papers, and effects. They, in effect, are saying that the term “the people” changes in meaning, literally from one sentence to the next; that the semantic valence of “the people” expands and contracts like a beating heart as one scrolls down the Bill of Rights.

Whether or not one believes that the right to keep and bear arms ought to be granted to just as many people as have to right to peaceably assemble and be secure from unreasonable searches, is a separate issue.

Fact is, though, that—unless one subscribes to the utterly untenable “mutating definition” doctrine of textual interpretation—the Constitution, as written, does grant the right to keep and bear arms to no fewer people than that.

And if you really think that “the people” in the Second Amendment refers to militia members only and not to the population at large, at least be consistent and acknowledge that only militia members, not the general population, have a constitutional right to assemble and be secure from unreasonable searches.

In other words, decide who “the people” are, and then stick with your definition.

“The people” simply can’t mean all people over here, some people over there, and most people in yet another section of the same document.

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